The Museum of Innocence, By Orhan Pamuk trans Maureen Freely

The objects of affection

Since so much in Orhan Pamuk's sumptuously rich novel of love and loss in Istanbul turns on obsessive behaviour, let me confess some of my own. The "museum of innocence" his hero plans to open in memory of a grand, doomed love affair will actually exist. Turkey's Nobel laureate has, like his Kemal Basmaci, amassed a vast horde of trivia and trinkets from the city of his youth. He aims to put them on show in the very house he gives in this book to the family of Kemal's beloved, Füsun.

One night last November, as autumn downpours cleared to leave a pale moon shining over the Galata tower, I dived down the steep streets of Çukurcuma that fall towards the waters of the Bosphorus to find and gaze at the still-ramshackle corner property where, in his novel, so much hope and anguish slowly mature. The 1970s Çukurcuma that Pamuk conjures was a down-at-heel melange of old Italian and Levantine families, provincial migrants, students and bohemians. These days, it aptly hosts curio and antique shops.

Stretching over 30 years, but seldom straying far from a few Istanbul neighbourhoods, this is a tale of life-defining desire and devotion marked out in hair-clips and ashtrays, china dogs and ticket stubs, pumpkin seeds and ice-cream cones, salt-shakers and quince graters. Its loving, even relentless, attention to the "the consolation of objects" builds into an overwhelming tribute to "the power of things", which "inheres in the memories they gather up inside them".

Along the winding way, Pamuk summons to new life his home city 30 years ago, as it mourned its past and stumbled into its future. He exhibits all that near-hallucinatory gift for ambience and atmosphere that places him among the great urban novelists of any age. And again, he has Maureen Freely to thank for a gripping and sensitive translation that captures the sensuous plenitude of his finely embroidered prose.

We begin in 1975, with "the happiest moment of my life". In a family-owned flat that serves as their amorous hideaway, the 30-year-old Kemal - pleasure-seeking scion of a nouveau riche clan of entrepreneurs – ecstatically makes love with a poor "distant relation". Füsun's poise and grace first struck him as she worked in a boutique in the Basmacis' smart suburb of Nisantasi. She is just 18, her father a teacher and her mother a seamstress, but her respectability – so vital to a woman's fortunes in this still-repressive time and place, as we learn – already compromised by entering a beauty contest.

Besides, Kemal is engaged to Sibel, the ultimate suitable girl. Discreetly sexy, mildly "Westernised" in fashion and taste (another abiding theme), she figures as the solid match to gladden every heart in the "insular and intimate circle" of Istanbul's commercial elite.

Yet this final bachelor fling deepens into the love of a lifetime. As Kemal's engagement party at the Hilton looms – a superb set-piece on Pamuk's part, which includes a cameo role for his own "boring" family – he and Füsun make love 44 times amid the flat's dusty bric-à-brac. From her first lost earring, the signs and tokens of their love furnish a fetishism that will keep his desire aflame when this chronic cataloguer can no longer relish "the scent of her neck" with its "mixture of algae, sea, burnt caramel and children's biscuits".

With the party comes the crisis. He and Sibel separate after a last-gasp late -summer idyll – depicted, as ever, with magical intensity – in an old waterside mansion. Füsun, proud and hurt by the prospect of a dismal future as another downtrodden secret mistress, marries Feridun: an amiable nonentity who yearns to make it in the film business.

Yet Kemal never gives up hope. With the silent connivance of Füsun's parents, he becomes a near-nightly visitor to their home, lending support to Feridun's movie ambitions while savouring every glance, every word and - above all – every souvenir he can filch from Füsun's chaste company. These sections boast all the lavish, cumulative and hypnotic detail readers of Pamuk will know from My Name is Red or The Black Book - but they may at first try the patience of strangers to his work.

The whole of Istanbul becomes "a galaxy of signs that reminded me of her". Pamuk also unrolls some wonderfully subtle meditations on memory and time that make The Museum of Innocence his most accomplished homage yet to his mentor: Proust. And these nervous evenings of stilted chatter in front of the one-channel TV, as the German wall clock chimes and the canary, Lemon, chirps, also abound in the sad comedy of frustration and evasion.

Time and again, Kemal (or Pamuk) points to an imagined gulf between this politely hidebound household and the plain-speaking freedoms of a fantasy "West". Yet anyone who recalls the sweet suffocation of suburban Britain in the same era will feel utterly at home with Füsun's mum and dad. As always, great writing proves most universal at its most densely local. Indeed, when Aunt Nesibe fusses around this rich cuckoo in their snug nest ("If I made a spinach pastry, would you eat it?"), Pamuk fans from this ex-imperial power may feel that Alan Bennett has taken up residence beside the Bosphorus.

Drama rushes back when the sleazy glitz of the film world pulls Feridun away from his wife. Their distance reawakens Kemal's hope. External shocks – the terror gangs that plagued Istanbul in the late 1970s, the 1980 military coup – do impinge on the romance, but only as casual impediments. Divorce opens the road to a renewal of bliss. The first stage of a car trip to the West shows Pamuk's prose at its most splendidly sensual, but we sense that "a love story that ends happily scarcely deserves more than a few sentences".

A rambling coda investigates the psychology of collecting as "a palliative for a pain", and even hauls in our novelist – "Orhan Bey" – as scribe of this gloriously sorry tale. At last, we grasp the meaning of the haunting early scene where young Kemal sees lambs slaughtered in poor city districts on the Feast of the Sacrifice, in memory of Abraham and Isaac. Culture began, the ritual implies, with substitution. The boy lived; the beast died. Now, in this mesmeric invocation of a passion and a place, memories and mementos must make up for all our absences and losses. Like Kemal, every lover - and every artist too - must learn to be "a shaman who can see the souls of things".

Suggested Topics
Arts and Entertainment

Arts and Entertainment
Fearne Cotton is leaving Radio 1 after a decade

Arts and Entertainment
The light stuff: Britt Robertson and George Clooney in ‘Tomorrowland: a World Beyond’
film review
Arts and Entertainment
Reawakening: can Jon Hamm’s Don Draper find enlightenment in the final ‘Mad Men’?
tv reviewNot quite, but it's an enlightening finale for Don Draper spoiler alert
Arts and Entertainment
Breakfast Show’s Nick Grimshaw

Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Arts and Entertainment

ebooksNow available in paperback
Arts and Entertainment

Arts and Entertainment
I am flute: Azeem Ward and his now-famous instrument
Arts and Entertainment
A glass act: Dr Chris van Tulleken (left) and twin Xand get set for their drinking challenge
TV review
Arts and Entertainment
MIA perform at Lovebox 2014 in London Fields, Hackney

Arts and Entertainment
Finnish punk band PKN hope to enter Eurovision 2015 and raise awareness for Down's Syndrome

Arts and Entertainment
William Shakespeare on the cover of John Gerard's The Herball or Generall Historie of Plantes

Arts and Entertainment

Game of Thrones review
Arts and Entertainment
Grayson Perry dedicates his Essex home to Julie

Potter's attempt to create an Essex Taj Mahal was a lovely treat

Arts and Entertainment
A scene from the original Swedish version of the sci-fi TV drama ‘Real Humans’
Arts and Entertainment
Hugh Keays-Byrne plays Immortan Joe, the terrifying gang leader, in the new film
filmActor who played Toecutter returns - but as a different villain in reboot
Arts and Entertainment
Charlize Theron as Imperator Furiosa in Mad Max: Fury Road
Arts and Entertainment
Jessica Hynes in W1A
tvReview: Perhaps the creators of W1A should lay off the copy and paste function spoiler alert
Arts and Entertainment
Power play: Mitsuko Uchida in concert

Arts and Entertainment
Dangerous liaisons: Dominic West, Jake Richard Siciliano, Maura Tierney and Leya Catlett in ‘The Affair’ – a contradictory drama but one which is sure to reel the viewers in
TV review
Arts and Entertainment
Richard Herring, pictured performing at the Edinburgh Fringe Festival two years ago
Arts and Entertainment
Music freak: Max Runham in the funfair band
Arts and Entertainment
film 'I felt under-used by Hollywood'
Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?

ES Rentals

    Independent Dating

    By clicking 'Search' you
    are agreeing to our
    Terms of Use.

    Sun, sex and an anthropological study: One British academic's summer of hell in Magaluf

    Sun, sex and an anthropological study

    One academic’s summer of hell in Magaluf
    From Shakespeare to Rising Damp... to Vicious

    Frances de la Tour's 50-year triumph

    'Rising Damp' brought De la Tour such recognition that she could be forgiven if she'd never been able to move on. But at 70, she continues to flourish - and to beguile
    'That Whitsun, I was late getting away...'

    Ian McMillan on the Whitsun Weddings

    This weekend is Whitsun, and while the festival may no longer resonate, Larkin's best-loved poem, lives on - along with the train journey at the heart of it
    Kathryn Williams explores the works and influences of Sylvia Plath in a new light

    Songs from the bell jar

    Kathryn Williams explores the works and influences of Sylvia Plath
    How one man's day in high heels showed him that Cannes must change its 'no flats' policy

    One man's day in high heels

    ...showed him that Cannes must change its 'flats' policy
    Is a quiet crusade to reform executive pay bearing fruit?

    Is a quiet crusade to reform executive pay bearing fruit?

    Dominic Rossi of Fidelity says his pressure on business to control rewards is working. But why aren’t other fund managers helping?
    The King David Hotel gives precious work to Palestinians - unless peace talks are on

    King David Hotel: Palestinians not included

    The King David is special to Jerusalem. Nick Kochan checked in and discovered it has some special arrangements, too
    More people moving from Australia to New Zealand than in the other direction for first time in 24 years

    End of the Aussie brain drain

    More people moving from Australia to New Zealand than in the other direction for first time in 24 years
    Meditation is touted as a cure for mental instability but can it actually be bad for you?

    Can meditation be bad for you?

    Researching a mass murder, Dr Miguel Farias discovered that, far from bringing inner peace, meditation can leave devotees in pieces
    Eurovision 2015: Australians will be cheering on their first-ever entrant this Saturday

    Australia's first-ever Eurovision entrant

    Australia, a nation of kitsch-worshippers, has always loved the Eurovision Song Contest. Maggie Alderson says it'll fit in fine
    Letterman's final Late Show: Laughter, but no tears, as David takes his bow after 33 years

    Laughter, but no tears, as Letterman takes his bow after 33 years

    Veteran talkshow host steps down to plaudits from four presidents
    Ivor Novello Awards 2015: Hozier wins with anti-Catholic song 'Take Me To Church' as John Whittingdale leads praise for Black Sabbath

    Hozier's 'blasphemous' song takes Novello award

    Singer joins Ed Sheeran and Clean Bandit in celebration of the best in British and Irish music
    Tequila gold rush: The spirit has gone from a cheap shot to a multi-billion pound product

    Join the tequila gold rush

    The spirit has gone from a cheap shot to a multi-billion pound product
    12 best statement wallpapers

    12 best statement wallpapers

    Make an impact and transform a room with a conversation-starting pattern
    Paul Scholes column: Does David De Gea really want to leave Manchester United to fight it out for the No 1 spot at Real Madrid?

    Paul Scholes column

    Does David De Gea really want to leave Manchester United to fight it out for the No 1 spot at Real Madrid?